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Dignity Health experts discuss risks of single-sport specialization for young athletes and mental health issues resulting from sport-related concussion

 3 minute read time

(PHOENIX, Ariz. – Oct. 13, 2022) – As high school fall sports begin in Arizona, two medical experts are warning parents and student-athletes about troubling trends in sports medicine – increased injury risk for young athletes who play one sport year-round and mental health issues among athletes who have sustained a sport-related concussion.

A study published last May in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that children and teens who had sustained a concussion were 40 percent more likely to develop a mental health issue than those of the same age who sustained an orthopedic injury. 

Sports neurologist Javier Cárdenas, MD, says he is seeing a significant increase in mental health issues among student-athletes he has treated at the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center at Phoenix’s Barrow Neurological Institute at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.

The warning signs of mental health issues were featured at a meeting of AIA Athletic Trainers this month, Dr. Cárdenas says. In addition, he notes that for the first time, the Arizona Interscholastic Association has included four questions related to mental health on its mandatory questionnaire for student-athletes.

“Here in Arizona, mental health of student-athletes has become a point of emphasis,” Dr. Cárdenas says. “This is a critically important aspect of the on-field care for student-athletes. Mental health issues don’t present like physical injuries, but they can have a tremendous negative impact on teens.”

Another issue facing student-athletes is repetitive stress injuries among those who specialize in one sport to the exclusion of all others. Dr. Brady Heaps, an orthopedic surgeon at Dignity Health Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, says he is seeing more patients identify themselves as single-sport athletes at ages when they should play a variety of sports to develop different muscles and skills.

“There’s good evidence that shows that this single-sport specialization actually increases the chances of injury,” Dr. Heaps says. “Part of it contributes to repetitive injuries. If they are playing 12 months a year, that’s a lot of repetitive stress on the body.”

A 2020 study in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine confirmed that “over time, young athletes, and particularly young female athletes, were more likely to be injured and sustain an overuse injury if they had a higher degree of sport specialization.” And a 2017 University of Wisconsin study of 1,544 Wisconsin high school athletes found that those who specialized were 70% more likely to sustain a lower extremity injury than athletes who played multiple sports.

Repetitive stress injuries include wrist injuries for girls gymnasts, knee injuries for girls soccer players and elbow and shoulder injuries for boys baseball pitchers.

“In my experience, this emphasis on one sport to the exclusion of all others is often driven by parents chasing college scholarship money,” Dr. Heaps says. “There’s a lot of pressure on these kids.” 

According to NCAA statistics, only 2 percent of high school student-athletes receive some form of athletic scholarship in college.

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Publish date: 

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Media contact

Abby Kay (Friedemann)

External Communications Specialist

p: (602) 406-4734

[email protected]